|Jane J. Student
Oct. 27, 1998
When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up and take over Mr. Ketler's farm at the end of our road. He had a couple dozen chickens, some exotic peafowl, two ponies and two horses, a herd of black Angus cattle in one field, some Holsteins for milk in another, two goats, four greylag geese, a few ducks, assorted dogs patrolling the wide porch, and a bunch of sows and piglets. To me, Mr. Ketler was the proverbial "Old MacDonald" and his farm the very prototype of the farm in that legendary song. He kept his pigs in a field adjacent to the road, and I eagerly looked forward to checking the progress of the piglets each time the school bus drove by (slowly, to avoid hitting the peacocks which invariably preferred the road to the lawn). On hot summer afternoons, the sows napped in their cool mud wallows, which Mr. Ketler had strategically dug and watered under shady trees. On cold winter days, the pigs crowded by choice into the two, low-roofed shelters stuffed with straw, which Mr. Ketler spread over his corn field all winter. The pigs had grass for grazing, social interaction with one another, and room for as much exercise as they wished.
Recent changes in the ways hogs are produced for market has made Mr. Ketler's farm look like an outdated dream of hog heaven. Today pigs are frequently raised in what are commonly called "hog factories," huge buildings filled with several thousand pigs. The increasing number of these operations has sparked bitter opposition in many of America's rural communities, making strange bedfellows of environmentalists, animal rights activists, farmers, and politicians. In their own defense, backers and operators of the hog factories point out that their facilities are extremely efficient and profitable, and they actually benefit the pigs since the animals are well-fed, sheltered from environmental extremes, not subject to injury from other pigs, and they receive appropriate veterinary care. Opponents point to the potential for environmental pollution from the facilities' waste, to the staggering economic blow to the family farm, and to the inherently cruel practice of confining sows to gestation crates. Despite the rosy picture of well-fed, protected, contented pigs painted by the hog factory operators, such facilities can never be called farms: instead, they are cruel and environmentally-unsound corporate industries.
One reason to consider these hog factories as major industries concerns their incredibly large scale of operation. Whereas the average independent farmer keeps around 125 or fewer sows, a typical hog factory is comprised of vast warehouse-like compounds capable of housing several thousand pigs -- a particular complex in Missouri houses over 2.1 million pigs (Nolan). The floors are constructed of concrete grids. Powerful jets of water wash the pigs' feces through the grating and into immense holding tanks below. From the tanks, the raw sewage is diverted to huge, man-made lagoons of sludge covering several acres. According to Jim Nolan, Senior Fellow at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, the Missouri operation produces "five times more waste than all the residents of St. Louis." The waste produced from a major city such as St. Louis undergoes strict treatment to avoid negatively impacting the environment. Lagoons filled with raw hog sewage, however, are nothing more than vast cesspools fouling the land and air for miles around. The sheer size and and the noxious byproducts of these operations put them on a level with major industries rather than true farms.
Hog factories have contributed their share of what might be considered "industrial accidents" to the environment, as well. For instance, Nolan points to the "800,000 gallons of hog manure" spilled in a recent Illinois accident. In another example, Mark Woodall, the Legislative Chair for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, cites a recent EPA report detailing the tremendous scale of a North Carolina disaster:
In 1995, the North Carolina New River experienced a spill when an 8-acre
lagoon burst through its dikes after heavy rains, spilling approximately 22 million
of hog waste and killing fish along a 19-mile stretch. The spill was twice the size
of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
An accident twice the size of one of the most infamous industrial accidents in recent history suggests that these large-scale hog operations have industrial-sized impact on the environment far exceeding the scope of independent farmers.
Although million-gallon spills are shocking examples of the threat these facilities pose, the day to day operations of hog factories are just as damaging to the environment. Water supplies are especially at risk since the waste tends to run off and accumulate in groundwater and nearby streams and rivers. The main pollutants are nitrates, Rhonda Perry, the Program Director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, reports that a recent "study of swine operations in 18 states revealed that more than 13% of the nearby drinking water had nitrate levels exceeding federal standards." In a Missouri study, researchers discovered that "of 82 tests performed at 22 sites. . .17 violated [Missouri] state water quality standards for ammonia or nitrates" (Sturtz). The hog factories' current reliance on lagoons to manage waste is seriously flawed, since the lagoons have demonstrated again and again that they are incapable of containing the waste. North Carolina State University studied "11 lagoons that were seven years or older [and] found that half leaked moderaterly to severely. Of those lagoons with 'little' seepage, nitrate levels in groundwater were three times the allowable level" (Woodall). The NC State study clearly shows that many lagoons leak, and that even when they don't leak, they still pollute nearby groundwater. The prognosis is extremely dismal and frightening: "the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates the average rate of leakage is 500 gallons per lagoon acre per day" (Woodall). The purity and safety of area drinking water is being degraded because these mega-factories are exploiting their current status as agricultural operations. It's about time we saw them for what they really are: highly pollutive industies.
As though the environmental dangers were not enough, the hog factories are endangering the independent farmer as well. Some communities have put up with the overpowering stench (which hangs for miles on still days and may blow several miles in windy conditions) and the degradation to their drinking water supplies in the belief that the operations will bring jobs to their employment-starved communities. The hog factories' overall economic impact, however, comes like a staggering blow. Rhonda Perry reveals that "every low-wage job created by large hog factories puts three independent family farmers out of business." Smaller family farms are having a difficult time competing with the hog factories because many hog factories are beginning-to-finish operations that cover the whole span of the pork industry. Many of the factories have slaughtering, processing, and packing facilities right on the same grounds as the hogs are raised, saving time and money in transportation as the pigs quickly go from farrowing and fattening to slaughter and processing. This gives the hog factory owners a distinct advantage over the independent farmer, who must ship hogs to distant slaughtering facilities. In 1993, for instance, "45% of the pork market share was controlled by the four largest corporations" (Perry). The main threat posed by these few corporations is "the problem of access to markets. As a few mega-corporations gain control, they dictate their own terms and squeeze out the small guy," said Suzette Hatfield, state coordinator for the [Oklahoma Family Farm] Alliance" (National Farmers Organization). The toll on the family farm has been enormous: ominously, the number of independent pig farmers has declined by 68% between 1970 and 1997 (Missouri Coalition for the Environment). It is absurd to think of these operations as farms: they are clearly corporate industries (many with overseas owners) with industrial-sized economic clout and industrial-strength waste.
A final consideration is the humane treatment of the animals. The most serious problem is the hog factories' practice of confining sows to gestation crates after breeding. For the duration of her pregnacy and raising her litter, a sow is imprisoned in a metal crate barely longer than she is and usually from 18-24 inches wide, with slats near the bottom of one wall for her piglets to run into an adjacent crate. The Humane Farming Association explains that
some crates are so narrow that simply standing up and lying down require
strenuous effort. On some factory farms, the sow is literally tied to the floor
by a short chain or strap around her neck. Deprived of all exercise and any
opportunity to fulfill her behavioral needs, she lives in a constant state of distress.
Her piglets are taken away, typically fattened in small pens crowded with a dozen individuals, and slaughtered at about six months of age. The sow, however, is immediately rebred and returned to her gestation crate, sometimes for years. Making this method of production particularly tragic is the fact that pigs are smart animals, more intelligent than dogs. They are social animals exhibiting complex herd structures and they may roam over 30 miles a day when they are left at liberty. When confined to their small crates, over 70% of pigs develop painful leg conditions (source?) due to lack of exercise. They bite their cages until their teeth are worn and broken and their gums are bloody. Most have scarred snouts from constant rubbing which is thought to release endorphines in the brain (similar to stalled horses' cribbing). Animal behaviorists say the pigs exhibit signs of "madness." Some people scoff at the scientific research, finding concern for the animals' conditions misplaced since the pigs are raised as food animals and going to be killed and eaten anyway. But concern for the pigs' treatment isn't merely a symptom of seeing Babe one time too many or feeling sorry for Wilbur in Charlotte's Web. Whether an animal is going to be eaten or not has nothing to do with whether it experiences pain and fear. Regardless of the ultimate fate of an animal, we have an ethical responsibility to manage an animal in our care humanely for the duration of its life. It's a responsibility most family farmers take seriously, and they treat the animals under their care as living creatures. The owners of hog factories, however, treat living pigs like products coming off an assembly line, without noses, without legs, without feeling, without intelligence.
In response to the growing concern over hog factory conditions, some states are beginning to create special classifications for large-scale animal production facilities. For instance, Missouri passed legislation in 1996 to regulate what they called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). As midwesterners become increasingly hostile to hog factories, the operations are starting to migrate to western states having fewer regulations, but where water is in shorter supply and the risk of contamination much greater. These operations are called pig "factories" for a reason: they are corporate industries hiding behind an agricultural facade because they produce pigs as their product. Unfortunately, as long as we classify hog factories as "big farms," they will escape the rigorous and stringent environmental standards controlling the disposal of human wastes and industrial discharges (Missouri Coalition for the Environment) Properly classifying them as industries would subject them to industrial regulation, and I just bet the expense of having to clean up their industrial waste would put the independent famer back in the competition. Much is at stake in this debate over classification, for the environment, for the farmer, and for the pigs themselves.